This paper aims to expose current historiography as Alphacentric:
a history of writing that is always tied to the emergence of the
alphabet. We propose that any "new" history of writing
must also consider what constitutes writing in the first place,
especially in the context of non-Hellenic, non-Western traditions
of writing. If the definition of writing is expanded to include
any surviving symbolization, then the possibilities of including
the histories of cultures more reliant on diverse textual systems
suddenly become available. Historiography, then, becomes the act
of writing histories about symbolization in general, whether it
be in the form of images and icons, textiles, architecture, ceramics,
What this paper will do is twofold: 1) We will expand the term "writing"
to be the production of "text" that may be discursive
or non-discursive: "text" is a word that has come to mean
any artifact of symbolization that can be "read" by an
audience; and 2) We will demonstrate how such an expansion of the
term "writing" can change historiography by reconstructing
cumulative histories of Mexican-Amerindian codex writing. This in
turn can also work against the "print dominance" found
in most composition classrooms while attempting to expand what is
considered legitimate products of composition-especially within
the pressures of multi-genre, multimedia views of composition.
We do not intend to limit our examination of Mexican-Amerindian
codex writing as a mere "alternative" narrative that ensures
the staying power of "non-Western" traditions. Narratives,
Malea Powell reminds us, are more than survival and endurance; they
have the power to inscribe, re-inscribe, and un-inscribe our world
(427). Such narratives are valuable to writing specialists, especially
those concerned with how cultural identities in the Americas are
shaped, destroyed, and sustained through official, resistant, and
ritualistic uses of writing.
The narratives we telescope here illustrate the written responses
to dominant historical narratives in the work of Mexican-Amerindian
Codices, some of the only major Aztec poetic forms to survive after
the transnational importation of Iberian customs. While we offer
a brief overview of the colonial era manuscripts produced in the
sixteenth century, our focus is primarily on the contemporary Codex
Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol by Guillermo Gómez-Peña,
Enrique Chagoya, and Felicia Rice. Specifically, we argue that Mexican-Amerindian
codex rhetorics have continually adapted, rejected, and revised
dominant historical narratives of the West, that they continue to
do so today, and that our analysis of the Codex Espangliensis can
offer much to scholars in Rhetoric and Composition still searching
for productive ways of examining "race," rhetoric, and
the plurality of writing practices that thrived in America long
before the arrival of the Puritan colonies and the rise of Western
European education institutions-a task that requires an expanded
conception of language beyond the discursive.
A Rejection of "Alphacentric" Language Theory
Historiography remains both a methodological as well as a disciplinary
concern for contemporary scholarship. In our field, Composition
and Rhetoric, the difficulties and rewards of historiography come
in and out of vogue depending on the amount of historical scholarship
being published at the moment. In 1988 and 1997, the Octalogs (I
and II, respectively) published in Rhetoric Review testified as
to how divergent our discipline is concerning the way history gets
written. In the first Octalog, Nan Johnson, takes a position in
the debate by saying, simply, that she "proceed[s] on the assumption
that historical research and writing are archaeological and rhetorical
activities" (9). Similarly, Janet M. Atwill, in Octalog II,
proclaims how historians both conform and stretch the traditional
forms of historiography: "I have submitted to the conventions
of a patriarchal discipline, but I have tried to use those conventions
to raise as much hell as possible" (25). There seems to be
as many perspectives as there are historians, and it is this kind
of rich debate about historiography that keeps at the forefront
the important role histories (and narratives in general) maintain
in directing, as well as authorizing, scholarly inquiry.
But as we look at the challenges and shortcomings brought on in
part by the changing definitions of "history," very little
attention is being paid to the way the changing definitions of "writing"
impacts historiography. Walter Ong, in his influential and troubling
book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World, does
little to help historians of writing think broadly and across cultures
because he consistently reinforces a notion of writing that privileges
the alphabet as a precondition for "literacy":
in the strict sense of the word, the technology which has
shaped and powered the intellectual activity of modern man,
was a very late development in human history. Homo sapiens
has been on earth perhaps some 50,000 years (Leaky and Lewin
1979, pp. 141 and 168). The first script, or true writing,
that we know, was developed among the Sumerians in Mesopotamia
only around the year 3500 BC (Diringer 1953; Gelb 1963).
. . . It is of course possible to count as 'writing' any
semiotic mark, that is, any visible or sensible mark which
an individual makes and assigns a meaning to. Thus a simple
scratch on a rock or a notch on a stick interpretable only
by the one who makes it would be 'writing'. If this is what
is meant by writing, the antiquity of writing is perhaps
comparable to the antiquity of speech. However, investigations
of writing which take 'writing' to mean any visible or sensible
mark with an assigned meaning merge writing with purely
biological behavior. When does a footprint or a deposit
of feces or urine (used by many species of animals for communication-Wilson
1975, pp. 228-9) become 'writing'? Using the term 'writing'
in this extended sense to include any semiotic marking trivializes
its meaning. The critical and unique breakthrough into new
worlds of knowledge was achieved within human consciousness
not when simple semiotic marking was devised but when a
coded system of visible marks was invented whereby a writer
could determine the exact words that the reader would generate
from the text. This is what we usually mean today by writing
in its sharply focused sense. (84)
quote this at length because Ong manages to state in this passage
the more common perspectives concerning writing, especially as it
is talked about in linguistic and archeological contexts. Though
Ong manages to make some important points in this book about the
connection between "literacy" and technology, this specific
passage rather elegantly provides a glimpse into beliefs about writing
that this paper most ardently refutes. From Ong, we can get a clear
picture of what writing is not: that for writing to be "true"
it must have an alphabet; writing must also must not be "interpretable
only by the one who makes it"; that writing conceived as "any
visible or sensible mark" becomes "purely biological behavior,"
and when this happens such confusion with semiotics "trivializes
its meaning"; and, most damning for the history of writing,
Ong's passage makes it clear that in order for writing to spawn
the "critical and unique breakthrough into new worlds of knowledge"
comes only through the creation of "exact words" from
which a reader could "generate" the transferred thoughts
of the writer. In other words, Ong defines writing-"in the
strict sense of the word"-as a type of semiotics consistent
with the sender-message-receiver (or "communication triangle")
view of writing in which a thought is sent via a message to a receiver
where it can be exactly and completely translated back into the
original thought. We dispute this position in favor of a definition
of writing that comes from an expanded view of language theory-one
that allows for each of these elements Ong declares as outside the
"true" sense of the term "writing."
Ong's view, then, is most certainly alphacentric in that he centers
the very definition of writing on the precondition that it must
have an alphabet: an abstracted symbol system that is wholly discursive
in nature. In order to understand what we mean by "alphacentric"
histories of writing, and to grasp why Ong's view of writing leads
to the writing of such histories, we must first examine why the
communication-triangle view of language fails as a model and, specifically,
why language is made up of more than just discursive writing. Writing,
as we wish to define it here, includes the discursive "word"
in all of its forms, but it also includes the more non-discursive
image as well. Susanne Langer first defined the terms "discursive"
and "non-discursive" in her book Philosophy in a New Key.
The discursive, the form of symbolization most common to composition
classrooms, includes the kind of language-making in which we "string
out" our ideas; it relies on language to be ordered, sequential,
and adherent to the "laws of reasoning" often assumed
to be synonymous with the "laws of discursive thought"
(82). Discursive texts often take the form of the expository essay,
the oral presentation, research and argument papers, and the common
"modes" such as narrative and description, etc. The discursive
is bound by semantic forms and, consequently, limits itself by those
forms because it assumes that the "word" is the only means
to articulate thought, and that anything that cannot be directly
conveyed by discursive means-i.e., anything unsayable or ineffable-is
mere feeling, or too "fuzzy" for serious study, or merely
"biological," as Ong put it. The discursive, therefore,
is commonly referred to as "verbal" or a kind of "literacy"
opposed to speech. The discursive, therefore, is often what we consider
to be "written" communication because, like this paragraph,
it aims to convey one idea after another, as precisely as possible,
with as few transmission "errors" as possible.
Conversely, the non-discursive is free of such ordering. In fact,
its most apparent difference from discursive symbolization is that
it often happens at once, is primarily reliant on image (taken here
to mean both sensory and mental images), and that it comes to symbolize
what cannot be said or written directly by the word. Here is what
Langer says about the non-discursive:
forms-lines, colors, proportions, etc.-are just as capable
of articulation, i.e., of complex combination, as words.
But the laws that govern this sort of articulation are altogether
different from the laws of syntax that govern language.
The most radical difference is that visual forms are not
discursive. They do not present their constituents successively,
but simultaneously, so the relations determining a visual
structure are grasped in one act of vision. Their complexity,
consequently, is not limited, as the complexity of discourse
is limited, by what the mind can retain from the beginning
of an apperceptive act to the end of it. [. . .] An idea
that contains too many minute yet closely related parts,
too many relations within relations, cannot be "projected"
into discursive forms; it is too subtle for speech [. .
.] But the symbolism furnished by our purely sensory appreciation
of forms is a non-discursive symbolism, peculiarly well
suited to the expression of ideas that defy linguistic "projection"
[. . . .] the forms and qualities we distinguish, remember,
imagine, or recognize are symbols of entities which exceed
and outlive our momentary experience. (93)
frames the difference between "visual forms" and "words"
(her way of simplifying the difference between "non-discursive"
text and "discursive" text) as differing primarily through
"laws" that "govern" them. What Langer will
clarify later is that images are not just "visual forms"
but any form taken by the senses, and that these forms are necessarily
more complex, in part because they are "simultaneously"
received, and because it "contains too many minute yet closely
related parts." Non-discursive symbolization, therefore, includes
those "things which do not fit the grammatical scheme of expression"
(89). It is symbolized language, but it is a form not limited to
the "chain-of-reasoning" we require in discursive text.
Its strength, in part, is that it suddenly can handle thoughts that
are otherwise too complicated-unutterable, or pre-vocal even-and
that there are connections through images that may lead to further
articulation. The codices we will discuss later, for example, rely
as much on their extra-communicative elements as they do their direct
historical or contemporary references. The value of non-discursive
text, therefore, is that it thrives and derives meaning from the
complexity and ambiguity of its medium, whereas discursive language
works best when it reifies and reduces complexity and ambiguity
as it goes along.
The most important aspect to this distinction between discursive
and non-discursive text is that image becomes language "in
the strict sense of the word" because it is defined as language.
Image can even be discursive, as in the form of charts, graphs,
and icons in ideographs. But by allowing non-discursive elements
of text to be considered on par with discursive elements of text,
we are displacing the alphabet from the center of notions of writing.
The term "writing," therefore, becomes a term inclusive
of the rich complexity inherent to non-discursive symbolization.
It is no longer limited, or reduced, to simply those types of symbols
for which Ong would deem trivial, interpretable only by the author,
or even less "true" (84). In the end, one of the most
vital roles for images is that it embraces cultures with diverse
symbol systems as "literate," or, in Ong's terms, able
to achieve "breakthroughs" in "human consciousness."
This type of historiography (and view of language) is then capable
of accounting for both the discursive and non-discursive aspects
of human activity, thereby providing a view of writing responsive
not only to a panoply of other (non-Occidental) historical cultures,
but also to current trends in digital discourse-trends that call
for increased attention to visual, multi-genre, and multi-media
In order for us to write non-alphacentric histories, therefore,
the first thing we must do is expand our theories of language beyond
its discursive bias. There have been many theories of language,
and many have their merits for their particular disciplinary audiences.
In fact, Composition and Rhetoric scholars are always necessarily
theorists in language, even if such a theory remains subsumed by
whatever emphasis or specialization is currently occupying the discussion
(a point that I.A. Richards originally voiced years ago).1 If we
are to theorize writing beyond an alphabetic system, then by necessity
we must also come to theorize language beyond the discursive.
How does redefining our view of language to include image and the
non-discursive open up possibilities for historiography? The following
discussion attempts to answer this by proposing that inclusion of
images in our conceptions of language frees it from the more linear,
non-affective, enthymemic set of resources found in discursive text;
more than the one-to-one correspondence between sender to message
to receiver; and more than any supposition that language is primarily
a set of (arbitrary) linguistic sign systems useful in communicating
thought transparently. Once such view of language, the Shannon-Weaver
view, posits language within an informational paradigm useful in
just this kind of communication-a practical way to move a message
between sender and receiver. Indeed, this role for language is acceptable
and necessary. However, even the Shannon-Weaver theory of communication
eventually acknowledges the complexity that emerges from human symbol
systems.2 And as Langer states, "If the mind were simply a
recorder and transmitter, typified by the simile of the telephone-exchange,
we should act very differently that we do" (New Key 36). Language
for Langer includes all symbol systems, some of which-specifically
ritual, art, and dreams-are not exclusively external to the individual,
nor are they necessarily intended to convey the "facts of consciousness"
(36). It is too often the case that the communicative role of language
becomes the entire concept of language; that in our efforts to clarify
our discursive texts, we often overlook the pivotal role of the
non-discursive within language. In contrast, the view of language
proposed here necessitates and values all that language-specifically
image-can do: its affectivity, circularity, ambiguity, incongruity,
and even its ineffability.
We must stress, however, that the main consequence of Langer's insistence
on including both discursive and non-discursive symbolization in
her theory of language is that it broadens the term "language"
itself. Language becomes all symbolization: the language of poetry,
math, music, textiles, food, commerce, violence, inaction, and even
silence. The world is text because we read the world as symbols,
and, in turn, create symbols to be read.3 Jacques Derrida acknowledged
this in Of Grammatology, and his notion of the sign continually
rewriting itself is consistent with the way language is viewed here:
what we know about the human ability to symbolize is that we must,
and that we do it often, and that language itself recreates itself
as it goes along.4 We create and produce symbols whether or not
we are educated or uneducated, within a community or alone, naïve
or wise, destitute or wealthy, sleeping or awake. Language consists
of more than its discursive function, more than the traditional
sender-messenger-receiver paradigm. Rather than consider language
to be primarily communication in the absence of noise, we prefer
to think of language as encompassing all of our powers to symbolize.
Image Writing and Historiography
Michael Ann Holly's book, Past Looking: Historical Imagination and
the Rhetoric of Image, demonstrates how historiography and image
writing may function to turn the hermeneutical gaze of the historian
inward. Like many historians in Composition and Rhetoric, she attempts
to negotiate what is perhaps the most pressing question in all historiography:
How do we write history and come to terms with both our desire for
truth and our acknowledgement that truth is unattainable? Holly
provides a possible compromise to this question near the end of
arises at that point in between where observer meets the
observed, and if both poles must be textually conceived,
as a poststructuralist agenda would have it, then at least
a performative space is opened up for examining the grammar
of the architectonic exchange. Each tries to tell the other
its story. And when the histories seem to enliven rather
than entrap and deplete the objects of the past, then both
the empiricist obsession with evidence and the poststructuralist
revulsion at truth claims become less pressing . . . Resistance
to both closure and mastery is the key. (186)
reconciling both the empiricists and the narrativists as legitimate
histories, and by calling for their layering in the production of
the two in historical scholarship without making any attempts at
mastering truth, Holly makes a methodological argument. But the
primary thesis of this book is not necessarily a methodological
one-it is a rhetorical one.
Through the use of examples found in a range of influential texts
within the field of art history, Holly resurrects the subject/object
debate in light of the rhetoric of images: specifically, she wants
"to consider the ways in which the binary opposition between
subject and object can be regarded as perpetually unfixed, as historically
'on the move'" (7). She guides the reader through several very
clear (and well illustrated) examples of medieval, Renaissance,
baroque, and contemporary art histories in order to show how historians
are constructed rhetorically by what they study as indicated by
their own compositional narratives. In the case of the Renaissance,
for example, Holly examines the compositional style in Jacob Burckhardt's
The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy: An Essay (1958). By
comparing the rules of perspective first posed by Leon-Battista
Alberti in 1435 with Burckhardt's text, Holly shows how historical
data actually dictate to a degree how historians write: "Burckhardt's
history is a part of what it is looking at. Instead of being an
analytic of the period, his history is an analogue of a Renaissance
procedure. Subject and object interpenetrate. Cause and effect scramble
their linearity" (48). Holly repeats this claim using examples
from several other prominent histories in her field. She repeatedly
shows how "representational practices encoded in [artifacts]
continue to be encoded in their commentaries" (xiii).
If it is true that historiographers see their histories through
contemporary lenses, Holly argues that the very same historiographers
were, to some degree, also designed to see them according to the
artifacts own rhetorical purpose. Holly's two major themes concerning
historiography are clearly developed throughout the book: "[f]irst,
perhaps it has never been true that historians of either art or
culture can easily escape the lure of casting their histories in
the shape of those objects they have set out to investigate,"
and "[s]econd, it follows that the historian, as a special
kind of spectator, is herself or himself always already anticipated
or implicated in the formal logic or play of the works she or he
is describing. The author is never exclusively on the outside"
(79). In reviewing these points, any scholar about to undergo historical
research might take into account how they will map out the past
as well as consider if "centuries-old light has been illuminating
[their] gaze all along" (208). Not only must historiographers
contend with what they see, but also whether they were predestined
to see it a certain way in the first place. Self-reflexivity becomes
even more important to such histories, especially for those more
geographically and chronologically distant.
One of the ancillary aspects of the book which was particularly
remarkable was Holly's characterization of the historical imagination,
or "the way we see and shape the world of the past" through
invention (9). Holly focuses not only how historians compose their
narratives, but also "how [the imagination] sets us (its scholars)
up as spectator-historians to see things in certain rhetorically
specific ways according to its own logic of figuration" and
that "we may be striving to look at its visual traces without
realizing that those works of art are also forever looking back
at us" (xiv). Just as archival work, for example, allows us
to "see" imaginatively some new narrative of the past,
the historian is also becoming part of the work studied: "The
historian is caught up in the lure of the gaze and has mapped herself
or himself onto the screen, taking on the coloration and playing
the part that the work on the other side has preordained" (24).
Invention through the imagination plays its rhetorical part on both
sides of the historical timeline. It is imbued with everything the
historian brings to the archive, and the historian, consequently,
becomes similarly affected by the artifacts waiting there. Holly
also reminds historiographers about the myth of discovery and the
difficulty such archeological metaphors present. Metaphors such
as "digging deeper" or "uncovering" belie an
enlightenment rhetoric bent on discovering Truth: "In purging
our historical consciousness of the idea of depth, of latent truths
lying beneath manifest clues, [we] return to the surface of interpretation
and linkages that lie there" (138). These archeological metaphors
tempt the treasure hunter inside us, betraying even further the
impossibility of cool objectivity.
Past Looking answers the call for "transdisciplinarity"
of research and methodologies from other fields of study. Holly's
book attempts to address "a crucial problem in late twentieth-century
historiography: the question of 'adequacy,' or at the very least
'suitability,' in historical representation (7). As she illustrates
using Burckhardt's traditional history of the Renaissance, old methodologies
die hard-the lure of claiming empirical truth through history remains
strong. She says, "I think it is intriguing to contemplate
why many historians, not to say most twentieth-century thinkers
in general, are driven to think perspectivally, compelled to create
worlds in which all things fall into place. In this sense . . .
perspective is not liberating. It is dogmatic and doctrinaire. It
admits no disjunctions or contrarieties into its scheme. By contrast,
the medieval treatment of space could be construed as creatively
freeing" (50). By this description, such "perspective"
can be likened to the penchant for discursive text because it too
privileges the clear and unemotional, the scheme of sequential analogue,
and the unambiguous.
Just as Rhetoric and Composition begins to digest new histories
which vacillate between traditionalist and non-traditionalist methodologies,
Holly's book becomes especially important. By examining the nature
of "the gaze," or seeing, or looking back into history,
Holly the art historian foregrounds epistemological and phenomenological
concerns with postmodern and poststructuralist theory in order to
emphasize how the "figural logic of the [artifact] effaces
the writer and puts in his or her place the logic of semantic space:
two narratives tattooing each other across historical distance"
(176). In doing so, Holly finds some middle-ground for writers interested
in "seeing" and "looking" into the past without
falling victim to the illusion of intransigence. She also opens
up a space for image writing to become analyzed historically without
necessarily being rewritten through an intra-European, alphacentrist
The Codex as Image Writing
De-naturalizing this history is vital to reading codex image writing,
as too many in the field have biased their theories on evolutionist
and colonialist narratives that obscure Mesoamerican and Mestiza
writing as pre-literate. George Kennedy's ambitious Comparative
Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction, for example,
reconstitutes Mexican-origin peoples as cultures without writing
and ranks them on a great rhetorical chain of being and social order
midway between the animal world and Ancient Greeks. Glyphs in Oaxaca,
however, situate the earliest known evidence of North American writing
between 650-700 B.C.E. The glyphs, about 2,700 years old, would
not only establish early Mexicans as plausibly the first writers
and teachers of writing on this hemisphere, but they would also
locate the cultural province of México as potentially one
of the earliest on the planet to advance a complex inscription system.
These historical legacies are important, as codex writing references
this past while simultaneously addressing today's world. Rather
than attempting to preserve or re-create a Mesoamerican "authenticity,"
Mexican-Amerindian codex writing instead generates new visions of
history and identity to be realized and inscribed, "from Columbus
to the Border Patrol."
In particular, we hope these stories will add to the larger project
of including non-discursive symbolization into our definition of
writing-one that is not contingent on having a Western alphabet
in order to be legitimate. We want these codices to lead to what
Jacqueline Jones Royster cites as inventing "other ways of
reading" the history of writing while promoting a critical
intervention in the politics of composition instruction in the present
(3). Such hermeneutic reconstructions of our world, however, call
into question the dominant histories of writing that recast the
intellectual provinces of greater México as mere peripheries
in the disciplinary imaginary of Rhetoric and Composition.5 The
wish-horizon of Hegelian Enlightenment, still virulent in the field,
proscribes a single road for progress, imagining the story of writing
and writing instruction advancing East to West. The field's largely
unquestioned global trajectory initiates in Ancient Greece, then
Rome, then Western Europe, until finally growing mature in America
but only in the North and not until the 19th century, during a critical
stage of EuroAmerican nation-building.6
The stories we offer are an invitation to examine how codex image
writing has continually created "new" literacies: new
ways of speaking, writing, and reading that promote anti-colonial
translations of history and memory in the Americas. Our method will
be to read codex technologies as rhetorical texts: places and performances
of meaning-making which provide arguments for and against certain
things, namely, the dominant historical narratives of what José
David Saldívar in Border Matters calls the "transfrontera
contact zone," spaces of colonial encounters imposed by global
capitalism across the México/United States borderlands.
Mexican-Amerindian image writing is thus a distinct enunciation,
grounded in the lived experiences of the peripheral colonial world.
These expressions illustrate new potentials that surpass the limits
of post-Enlightenment rationality-yet these are not projects of
deconstructionists or postmodernists, as such critics continue to
center European modernity as their organizing horizon. Instead,
these "subalternized" representations posit new articulations
of our time that provide not only much-needed correctives to historiography,
but political expressions better suited to current material realities
for both the "Global North" and "Globalized South."
In place of the uni-linear developmental "Composing East-to-West"
wish-horizon, Mexican-Amerindian codices invoke the idea of Argentinian
philosopher Enrique Dussel's transmodernity: a hermeneutic reconstruction
of temporal and spatial correlations across the globe, in which
it becomes possible to perceive multiple histories and memories
coexisting, without assumptions that all civilizations follow a
single Occidental, alphacentric trajectory. The following analysis
addresses how the reproduction of codex technology is displacing
the global design of the Civilizing Mission. Particularly, we focus
on the Civilizing Mission's consequent oppositions of "civilization/barbarism,"
"literate/illiterate," "first world/third world,"
"developed/underdeveloped," and "Indianism/Hispanophobia"
across the transfrontera contact zone. The emerging language processes
in texts such as the Codex Espangliensis not only displace Western
oppositions but also allow for possibilities beyond such dichotomous
Codex Rhetorics of Resistance
Through the denial of Western historical centrality, "subalternized"
Mexican-Amerindian subjects transcend binaries such as "First
world/Third world," "Developed/Underdeveloped," and
"Mesoamerica/later America" by engaging both yet neither
at the same time. Mexican-Amerindian writing practices have continually
adapted to new ways of social life while at the same time retaining
roots in older pre-Columbian communicative forms. The Amerindian
codices, then, are discursive manifestations of continuity and adaptation
that comprise this survival. Further, codex technologies offer powerful
critiques of the dominant historical narratives of Western expansion,
colony, and the border in an age when such things are hotly contested.
Historically, the rhetorical work of Mexican-Amerindian pictography
was one of the only major Aztec poetic forms to survive the brutal
campaign of the Western alphabet. The codex "books" were
productions of paper, hide, or woven cloth; marked on one or both
sides and folded, rolled or left flat; and sometimes protected with
wooden end-pieces. The Náhua provide one of the earliest
Mesoamerican expressions for writing: tlacuilolitzli, which means
both "to write" and "to paint." While the tlacuiloque
composed the books' images, it was the tlamatinime who assumed ownership
as well as the task of textual interpretation.7 Traditionally, the
codices were tools of the Mexican intelligentsia to record genealogies,
migrations, other political affairs, and origin myths. Of the pre-Hispanic
era, only twenty-two codices survive, along with fifty-four commissioned
immediately after the conquest of Tenochtitlán in 1521.
Spanish colonial powers, in the interest of reconstructing Amerindian
memory and history, commissioned new productions. The Codex Mendoza,
for example, was written in 1542 by the order of Virrey Mendoza
and recounts the history of the fall of México-Tenochtitlán.
Such colonial-era books, although penned by Mestiza and Indigenous
writers, initially provided the dominant narratives of Aztec history
as seen and authorized by Spanish imperial eyes; juxtaposed images
of Aztec pictography, the Spanish-Iberian alphabet, and an alphabetized
Náhuatl weave a narrative of the imposed transformation of
Indigenous writing practices and cultures. The codex was thus becoming
a technology of psychological violence, a tool to colonize Amerindian
Of particular interest to writing specialists is the illustration
of coexisting and conflicting inscription systems in a single text.
Pictographs juxtaposed with Náhuatl and Castilian reflect
competing rationalities and histories; a palimpsest of divergent
traditions and ideologies where a Tlaquilo Cosmos and Ibero-Christian
world converge. More than hybrid expressions of cultural dichotomies,
the codices are fractured enunciations in response to colonial relations
of power that disfigure the Amerindian literate world as a "barbarian"
exterior to a "civilized" Occidental center. These textual
admixtures work to destabilize the idea of the Western letter as
a naturalized and valorized element of written communication while
calling into question the integrity of Western distinctions between
"orality," "writing," "image," and
"painting": in other words, the term "writing"
must embrace both discursive and non-discursive language forms if
we are to legitimate and create histories for these codices.
During the first three generations after Cortez' invasion of México,
pictographic image writing remained strong between both Indigenous
and Mestiza writers, yet Western scholarship has traditionally focused
on the subjugation and erasure of Aztec agency during the colonial
sixteenth century. Contemporary re-readings from Cora Lagos and
Elizabeth Hill Boone, however, seek new translations by emphasizing
the power and validity of pictographic writing independent of and
separate from the accompanying alphabet script. We must begin to
"read" the pictorial image, Lagos argues, as the nexus,
the common space where information is established and authenticated;
"it is in the image more than in the writing where the contact
between cultures is performed" (86).
From this framework, we can cultivate an understanding of a present-day
codex emergence, the 2000 Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to
the Border Patrol, perhaps the most revisionist codex ever assembled,
and one that directly addresses current forms of dominant Western
historical narratives. Here, the authors tell a story of civilizing
missions, colonial conquests, and rhetorical heterogeneity using
poetic Spanglish, Chiconics, Aztec pictography, 20th century Mexican
iconography, and transnational corporate imagery to weave yet another
retelling of history. This time, in 1492 Noctli Europzin Tezpoca,
an Aztec sailor, departs from the port of Minatitlan aboard a small
flotilla. Eventually, Tezpoca discovers a new continent, and proceeds
to name it "Europzin" after himself. In November 1512,
Aztec soldiers begin their conquest of Europzin in the name of the
"Lord of Cross-Cultural Misunderstanding." The reversal
of Europe and Amerindia in the Codex Espangliensis's telling of
world history works to dislodge the integrity of the Civilizing
Mission as it has operated in the past and is still understood today.
The alphabetic script in Codex Espangliensis intersects various
texts from performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña,
whose publications combine cyberculture and Chicano/Latino art.
Numerous panels of the codex include references to his 1996 The
New World Border, "a kind of post-Mexican literary hypertext"
(ii). Throughout Border and Codex Espangliensis, Gómez-Peña
references the collapse of "three-worlds" theory, the
post-1955 Bandung Conference mapping of global social space. The
breakdown of the opposition between First and Second worlds, with
the disintegration of the Soviet Union, makes it possible to imagine
beyond the production of the Third World and to define post-national
modes of collective identity in the transfrontera contact zone.
From New World Border, Gómez-Peña argues that the
"old colonial hierarchy of First World/Third World" is
being supplanted by "the more pertinent notion of the Fourth
World," explained as the "conceptual place where the indigenous
inhabitants of the Americas meet with the deterritorialized peoples,
the immigrants, and the exiles" (7). Readers of the codex are
confronted with transnational flows of cultures and persons in the
"Fourth World," spaces where the binary between Indigenous
"noble savages" and Mestiza "ignoble savages"
Fourth World multiple temporalities furthermore compel the reader
to reside in the early 21st century era of late global capitalism
while simultaneously inhabiting the Spanish colonial sixteenth century.
We are thus confronted with an invitation to "read backward,"
to consider both pre-Columbian and colonial forms of prenational
territorialization as well as forward to think about newly emerging
frontiers and regional logics that revise dominant historical narratives.
Transnational corporate imagery of the North American Free Trade
Agreement (NAFTA), Disney, and telecommunications reside along savage
depictions of "barbarian" Mexicans, Mestiza/os, and First
Nation's Peoples. On one panel, cannibal Aztecs are seen distributing
body parts of Disney's principle animated character, Mickey Mouse,
thereby critiquing both Civilization/Barbarianism and Development/Modernization
under the banner of global colonialism across the México/United
States transfrontera contact zone.
For years after the United States Congress passed NAFTA in 1993,
debates about the treaty provoked rhetorics of border crossing and
crisis. Legacies of these debates form a thread of images throughout
Codex Espangliensis with blurred distinctions between "free
trade art" and "free art." Thomas Foster, in "Cyber-Aztecs
and Cholo-Punks," suggests that NAFTA represents both a misfortune
and a new opportunity
the extent that transculture and border crossing could be
domesticated as "conservative diplomacy," it also
proved that the idea could be reappropriated for less conservative
purposes. But that reappropriation could only be accomplished
through the admission that the border is no one's exclusive
property or territory, neither NAFTA's nor Gómez-Peña's.
rhetorical work of Codex Espangliensis therefore highlights the
futility of clearly distinguishing between assimilationalist transcultural
forms and resistant ones. On one hand, the rhetoric of border crossing
can be a subversive and critical act. On the other, such articulations
can be exploitive, whether emerging from the political right or
In The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha writes of "the danger
that the mimetic contents of a discourse will conceal the fact that
the hegemonic structures of power are maintained in a position of
authority through a 'shift in vocabulary'" (241-2). The Codex
warns of such a shift in diction from geographical colonialism to
cultural imperialism, from Cortez to Free Trade, from "Columbus
to the Border Patrol," a shift that maintains power structures
through a veiled rhetoric of popular culture and advertising. Critically
reading such colonial power provokes what Clair Fox identifies as
a "global border consciousness," a strategic departure
from the site-specific concept of the México/United States
borderlands. Gómez-Peña mirrors such a shift to globalize
the border when he acknowledges: "the border is no longer located
at any fixed geopolitical site. I carry the border with me, and
I find new borders wherever I go" (New World Border 5).
Also in this fractured narrative, "illustration/annotation"
merge in dialogic negotiation between dissonant literacies and divergent
reading practices. Here, new modes of Mexican-Amerindian rhetorical
historiography imply new ways to interpret history, rhetoric and
composition, thereby having substantial implications for both historians
and writing students. When in history did "America" become
literate, literary, and rhetorical? When did "writing"
begin in North America? According to whose measuring stick? What
counts as writing and what does it mean to be "literate?"
What does it mean to be "civilized?" In the context of
these crucial questions, historians of writing might read codex
technology as a "new" vantage point to rethink the relationship
between supposedly expanding notions of literacy, composition, rhetoric
and Mexican-Amerindian image writing. The codices evidence precisely
what the dominant historical imaginary erases and what the field
of Rhetoric and Composition lacks: co-evolutionary or parallel histories
of writing, rhetoric, and rational thought in the Americas.
Rethinking rhetoric and writing from Mexican-Amerindian textual
legacies advances a more constructive understanding of parallel
writing systems and rationalities in America, yet such thinking
also promotes a critical intervention in the politics of writing
instruction in the present. Such an intervention might involve departing
from the colonial matrix and denouncing dominant alphacentric narratives
of writing-or perhaps facing the reality that writing specialists
today may need to look far beyond the myths of a Greco-Roman horizon
toward its challenges and mutations on a global scale. In this sense,
any consideration of Mexican-Amerindian subalterns as active and
central historical agents in the planetary narrative of the historiography
of writing motivates a decided departure from the field's hermeneutical
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Foster, Thomas. "Cyber-Aztecs and Cholo-Punks: Guillermo Gómez-Peña's
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1 Speculative Instruments by I.A. Richards (New York: Hartcort,
1955), pp. 115-116.
2 See The Mathematical Theory of Communication by Claude Shannon
and Warren Weaver (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1949).
3 This claim is one of the main tenets in cultural studies, and
it has become a cornerstone of postmodern studies. It is perhaps
the case that my view of "text" is much broader, however,
than even this. "Text" is not just discursive; text is
also non-discursive. Therefore, text can not only be a photograph
of a puppy; text can also be the images and feelings read in an
abstract expressionist painting of a puppy as well.
4 "In all senses of the word, writing thus comprehends language.
Not that the word 'writing' has ceased to designate the signifier
of the signifier, but it appears, strange as it may seem, that 'signifier
of the signifier' no longer defines accidental doubling and fallen
secondarity. 'Signifier of the signifier' describes on the contrary
the movement of language: in its origin, to be sure, but one can
already suspect that an origin whose structure can be expressed
as 'signifier of the signifier' conceals and erases itself in its
own production" (7).
5 And here we are confronted with the epistemological double bind
of any so-called "alternative" rhetoric. Either Amerindian
rhetorics are so different from Greco-Roman ones that they cannot
be considered Rhetoric proper, or conversely, to be accepted, Amerindian
rhetorics have to become similar and assimilated to Western conceptualizations
of Rhetorical practices. Rhetoric, then, has become a trademark
of the Western world and a yardstick by which to measure the discursive
products and effects of other societies. While Rhetoric now belongs
to the West, "alternative" rhetorics are something that
other societies might have as "objects" to be studied
by those who imagine themselves as intellectual decedents of those
who invented the idea of Rhetoric as well as those who invented
the academic field of Rhetoric and Composition. In either case,
provincial Western categories predetermine and fossilize the terms
of debate. This paper offers no quick resolution, but instead seeks
to question how canonical articulations of Rhetoric and Writing
constitute a preferable alternative to those emerging from its peripheries.
6 The groundbreaking thesis of Martin Bernal's controversial Black
Athena reveals the cradle of the Rhetorical tradition as a conceptual
byproduct of early 19th century Aryan-Germanic racism that made
it rationally and emotionally intolerable that Greece would have
received its higher culture from Africans and "Semites."
The prevailing Aryan Model of history, to use Ed Schiappa's vocabulary,
is itself a "reconstruction," a fabrication premised upon
the irrational cornerstone of the Western European Enlightenment.
In "Europe, Modernity, and Eurocentrism: The Semantic Slippage
of the Concept of Europe," Enrique Dussel understands the uni-linear
diachrony Greece>Rome>Europe as an extension of the Aryan
Model. This fiction navigates across the Atlantic to the Americas,
forming yet another continental East-West progression via Manifest
Tlamatinime are described as philosophers, women and men who studied
"proper discourse" (León-Portilla 73) at the conservatory
called the Calmécac.
8 In Border Matters, José David Saldívar argues that
theoretical abstractions such as "subaltern" "Fourth
World," and border crossing result in a shift to dematerialize
the actual geography and materiality of border (158). The problem
with such rhetoric, Saldívar warns, stems from cutting off
the trope of the border from its lived experience and therefore
reproduces a detached logic of exaggeration and stereotyping.